Archive for journalism

preprints promote confusion and distorsion, and don’t blame journalists!

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2018 by xi'an

“…anyone considering publicizing a preprint have a responsibility.”

On my way to the airport, flying to B’ham, I read an older issue of Nature that contained this incredible editorial entry from Tom Sheldon Tim Horton, calling for regulation of preprints or worse, for the reason that journalists could misunderstand their contents and over-hype a minor or worse wrong claim. Taking as mistaken illustration the case of the Séralini et al. paper, about the Monsanto maize, which happened to be published under “embargo” conditions and reproduced in most media before a scientific storm erupted on the lack of significance of the samples. This call is unbelievably cheeky and downright absurd as it shifts the responsibility away from the journalists to the scientific community, throwing the “check your sources” principle of investigative journalism down the drain. As if the only reason for immediately publishing front-page discoveries is not to beat the competition and attract more readers…

The irony of seeing this piece in Nature is that a few pages later, there is a news entry on German and Swedish institutions breaking negotiations with Elsevier, as the publisher refuses to join a global package of open source publications. Nothing seems amiss about this nice aspect of scientific publishing with the author of this editorial, nor with the further reports of retraction of published paper in the same issue. Presumably because journalists have already moved to the next hot discovery by the time the retractions at last appear…! And to answer the final question of “Should all preprints be emblazoned with a warning aimed at journalists that work has not been peer reviewed?”, no, no, and no: preprints are not written for journalists or the general public. Unsurprisingly, the tribune induced outraged reactions from Nature readers.

a free press needs you [reposted]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , on August 16, 2018 by xi'an

“Criticizing the news media — for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong — is entirely right. News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job. But insisting that truths you don’t like are “fake news” is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the “enemy of the people” is dangerous, period.”


Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by xi'an

Believe it or not, I had never read Freakonomics..! Therefore, when I saw the book on sale for a negligible price in Dehli Airport—great airport by the way!—, I went for it. Having now read a fair chunk of the book (or unfair chunk, see below!) within two days (during my metro rides), I am rather disappointed by the content and thus puzzled by the then-craze about the book. (Andrew just loved it!) Freakonomics is certainly a well-designed product from a salesman perspective and it thus reads pleasantly enough, but I find it remains at too much of a superficial level. In addition, it sometimes sounds as if the authors have a hidden agenda (more later)! (Now, of course, my reaction of the book is completely irrelevant as it comes very late after the publication in 2005. So, reader,  stop here if you do not want to waste time any further!)

“…if the death penalty were assessed to anyone carrying an illegal gun, and if the penalty were actually enforced, gun crimes would surely plunge.” (p.118)

To wit, the way the book is written sounds much more journalistic than academic: the authors take an economic study or paper about an unusual (freakish) topic and weave a nice story around it, always with the intent of showing “conventional wisdom” is wrong. Since this is a general public book, there is no theory behind the story and it all seems to flow from “common sense”: yes, most drug dealers do not earn enough to make a living because the corporate structure of the drug economy is highly hierarchical and as highly biased towards higher levels. The only foray into theory, namely the discussion about factors impacting kids success rate at school, casts doubts about regression and the distinction between causation and correlation is never truly investigated (even though the mantra correlation is not causation is found therein often enough!). Moreover, by resorting to the journalistic trick of making everything very personal (so-and-so went to drug dealer housing projects for six years, so-and-so decided to re-analyse the school records in Chicago, &tc.), the authors actually lower the credentials of their theories. If so-and-so found this effect, maybe there is another or an hundred others so-and-so going the opposite way! But those others are not mentioned as the book retains this flatland and Unitarian perspective… And the conclusions are anti-climactic: when so-and-so gets hold of the ledgers of a crack dealing gang, the description stops at reporting the hierarchical structure of the organisation and the revenues of the different levels. No major theory appears to be tested. At least within the book.

“Given the number of handguns in the United States (…), the probability that a particular gun was used to kill someone that year is 1 in 10,000. The typical gun buyback yields fewer than 1,000 guns—which translates into an expectation of less than one-tenth of one homicide per buyback.” (p.121)

The above quote puzzled me for a while, until I formalised the experiment as an hypergeometric draw of 1000 guns from a population of almost 300 millions guns, out of which more than 10,000 are crime guns. (The probability that a particular gun is used for a crime is then 1 in 30,000.) And the probability to draw at least one of those guns in one buyback is then approximately 0.03. But this seems to miss the other side of the equation, namely the worth of a human life. (Not that I believe that gun buybacks are particularly effective since, as noted by the authors, they mostly attract “heirldom or junk” (p.121).)

A minor disappointment was to stumble upon the conclusion of the book in…its very middle! I first thought I was confused and this was only the conclusion to a section but no, the second half of the book as I bought it was made of extracts from the authors’ column in the New York Time and of their blog, getting close to a swindle in my opinion! Or at least being the unfair chunk mentioned above. I also find annoying (and so does Andrew!) this insistence upon being rogue economists, as advertised on the front cover of the book, as the authors have shown themselves to be very efficient economists by turning the freakonomics idea into a whole business: books, films, videos, lectures, &tc. Nothing to complain about, except for the rogue label. (Note that they should have registered the franchise as well, given the subsequent profusion of -omics books and sites, from the fantastic Freakonometrics blog of my former colleague Arthur Charpentier, to Soccernomics I recently bought for my son…)

L’Aquila: earthquake, verdict, and statistics

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by xi'an

Yesterday I read this blog entry by Peter Coles, a Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff and soon in Brighton, about L’Aquila earthquake verdict, condemning six Italian scientists to severe jail sentences. While most of the blogs around reacted against this verdict as an anti-scientific decision and as a 21st Century remake of Giordano Bruno‘s murder by the Roman Inquisition, Peter Coles argues in the opposite that the scientists were not scientific enough in that instance. And should have used statistics and probabilistic reasoning. While I did not look into the details of the L’Aquila earthquake judgement and thus have no idea whether or not the scientists were guilty in not signalling the potential for disaster, were an earthquake to occur, I cannot but repost one of Coles’ most relevant paragraphs:

I thought I’d take this opportunity to repeat the reasons I think statistics and statistical reasoning are so important. Of course they are important in science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable even with statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance, it has to question itself.

Statistical reasoning also applies outside science to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level.

A bit further down, Peter Coles also bemoans the shortcuts and oversimplification of scientific journalism, which reminded me of the time Jean-Michel Marin had to deal with radio journalists about an “impossible” lottery coincidence:

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.